There is a reason why Anurag Kashyap is considered an excellent filmmaker. There is a reason why he has that huge cult following. That reason is that he hates formula. Few filmmakers in India have had the balls to fiddle with the Bollywood cinema rules on a mainstream scale, and Kashyap has been doing it consistently over the past few years. He tried his hand at bridging the gap between the mainstream and the offbeat with the Wasseypur films, and even went lo fi with the disappointing That Girl in Yellow Boots.
Most people consider Black Friday as Kashyap’s golden ticket. It wasn’t. It was Paanch. Dark, blood soaked noir is his forte. With Ugly he’s gone back to his roots, and the results are as follows: Ugly is Kashyap’s best film in years. It’s also his most mature work to date.
The plot is rather simple – a little girl Kali goes missing, and her father, the struggling actor Rahul (played by Rahul Bhatt) runs helter skelter in search for her. There are twists and turns, but this film is not about the whodunit, it’s about the characters – they’re all ugly - ugly from the inside and the outside and from the sides and the bottom too. Kali’s mother (Tejaswini Kolhapure) is a suicidal alcoholic, divorced from Rahul and now married to the cop investigating the case (Ronit Roy). The cop is sort of regressive, yet feigns an air of dignity and righteousness. Rahul’s friend and agent (Vineet Kumar) is a seedy guy involved in all the awful things you expect from a casting agent. The thanedaar taking the case (Girish Kulkarni) is an arrogant prick who finds humor in Rahul’s anguish. Ugliness binds everyone together, and Kashyap places all these scumbags in a juicer mixer grinder of a plot. There’s lies, betrayal, screaming, pummeling, whiskey guzzling, pill popping, mass murdering – your usual depraved cocktail of Bombay’s underbelly.
The first thing you’ll notice about Ugly is how ironically beautiful it looks. It’s all dark and dank and disgusting and yet impossible to look away from – courtesy of cinematographer Nikos Andretsakis, who earlier worked on Dibakar Bannerjee’s films. It’s quite comforting that this isn’t another Dev D aesthetic – this one is its own beast filled with black and blue, and the color of grime. The second thing you’ll notice is the spine chilling rock based background score by Brian McOmber. That sort of sound design has never been done before in Bollywood and it really is quite refreshing to hear.
The third is the supercharged powerhouse performances from nearly everyone present in the film. Even when Ronit Roy is repeating his tough guy shtick from Udaan, he’s pummeling the scenery. Rahul Bhat, last seen in the terrible Nayee Padosan is wonderfully desperate. Vineet Kumar is delightfully disgusting, as is Surveen Chawla and her item number. Apparently the actors weren’t given the scripts before shooting, and the improv style of filmmaking somehow worked.
Add to all that grime jet black humor and Kashyap’s trademark indulgent bakchodi, which this time, is arresting instead of seeming overlong. There is a ten minute scene between Kulkarni and Bhat, where the latter goes to the police station to lodge a complaint and the former takes his case instead of taking on the case. Every bickering venomous sentence coming from Kulkarni’s mouth is hilarious and the scene becomes more and more fun as it goes on. It only becomes less hilarious when you realize that’s how most police stations in India function.
You’ll probably be confused as to whom to root for by the end of the film, but the answer really is nobody. Kashyap never tries to make you sympathise with any of the characters, thereby making them more real. Human beings are terrible by default, and they would only do more terrible things to others to have their own way. So there’s no point of rendering a contrived ‘goodness’ to the central character, and Kashyap makes it all quite non judgemental. The vast space between helplessness and desperation is morbidity, and Ugly serves just that by the oodles. The climax might seem anticlimactic but it certainly is quite haunting.
There are two things Ugly made me do – it made me return immediately to the ticket line, and also made me visit Masala Mantar – a restaurant where a kid waiter shows up and starts dancing maniacally in front of you – the reenactment of which is shown to hilarious perfection in the film. I suspect you’ll be doing something similar, because really, it’s not a question of if you’ll see the film, it’s about when, and with how many of your friends.
(First published in Firstpost)